Debt Bondage Case Reinstated in Texas

     HOUSTON (CN) – Dozens of Filipino workers who claim they were duped into debt bondage can make their case in Texas, an appeals court ruled.
     Fifty-seven Filipino men sued International Plant Services (IPS) and its Manila-based affiliate, MBC Human Resources Development Management Corp., in May 2011 in Harris County Court .
     Based in La Porte near the Port of Houston and dozens of refineries and chemical plants, IPS supplies skilled workers for the oil and gas industry.
     In the lawsuit, lead plaintiff Renato Acain claimed MBC persuaded the workers to leave their home country with promises of an $18 per hour minimum wage.
     The complaint refers to the two companies and six individual defendant officers as the “Enterprise.”
     “The Enterprise profited by recruiting foreign nationals in the Philippines and charged the foreign nationals anywhere from $1,200 to $4,000 per person for what they represented as fees associated with obtaining a visa, [and] for the cost of transporting them into the United States,” the complaint states.
     Acain said the workers were told their room and board would be free.
     But upon arrival, the employers told them the contracts they signed did not apply in the United States, and that they would receive a $1,000 per month living allowance they would have to repay, according to the complaint.
     Many of the workers took out loans with the Enterprise that were to be repaid to MBC with automatic wage withholdings, Acain says.
     Worse, Acain says, the promise of steady work was illusory, as the men were put into a labor pool and given jobs when they became available, giving them no way to pay back the loans.
     Thousands of miles from home, the workers found themselves stranded in the grip of “debt bondage” and fear, as IPS said they would be deported if they tried to find work elsewhere, Acain says in the complaint.
     Harris County Judge Patricia Kerrigan dismissed the case for lack of jurisdiction in March 2013.
     The defendants persuaded Kerrigan that Filipino law applies to the case because the workers were employed through a program governed by Filipino regulations and agencies.
     Kerrigan accepted the defendants’ claims that consideration of international comity, or deference to another country’s laws, warranted dismissal.
     On appeal, the workers said they sued in Texas because most of them still live in the United States, many in Texas, that the contracts were done in Texas and the Filipino legal system is corrupt.
     The workers cited a declaration from Melchor Dizon, director of the Philippines Overseas Employment Agency, in which he stated: “Under the facts and circumstances unique to this case, it appears that the Texas courts are in a good position to resolve this case.”
     The Houston-based 1st Court of Appeals sided with the workers Tuesday, reversed the dismissal and remanded the case.
     “Although some factors – the Filipino regulatory scheme regarding the overseas employment program, the residence in the Philippines of some appellants and appellees, and the fact that some of the wrongful conduct (the alleged fraudulent inducement) is alleged to have occurred in the Philippines … the question here is whether it was unreasonable for the trial court to exercise jurisdiction over this case. Based on the record in this case, we conclude it would not be,” Judge Rebecca Huddle wrote for the three-judge panel. (Parentheses in original.)
     The panel’s ruling does not apply to defendant MBC Human Resources, because the plaintiffs did not execute service on MBC.

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